Anti-Shari’ah Legislation: A New Incarnation of an Old Intolerance


Excerpted from- WISE Up- Knowledge ends Extremism 2017


Every few years, a new Islamic term is invoked by anti-Muslim bigots to “otherize” Islam as a so-called un-American religion, and to conjure up fear of Muslims by painting them as a menace to “civilized society.” At one time, Islamophobes warned of the Muslim threat of jihad. At another, misusing the term taqiyyah, or concealment, became a scare tactic. Currently, dawah, or proselytization, is being brandished as the latest threat to America. Perhaps more than any other term, however, Shari’ah has consistently been exploited by Islamophobes—most of whom have no theological training and cannot speak credibly on issues of Muslim belief and practice—to create confusion and fear in the general American public about what Shari’ah is. Such individuals incorrectly liken “Shari’ah law” to the U.S. legal system, and falsely claim that Muslims seek to subvert U.S. constitutional protections with Shari’ah-sanctioned restrictions on women’s freedoms and the imposition of brutal punishments for what are seen as extralegal issues, such as adultery, blasphemy, or apostasy. While American Muslims have proposed no legislation that would recognize or impose Shari’ah, the hysteria has precipitated a veritable cottage industry of campaigns seeking to prevent its recognition or use within the public sphere, especially in the U.S. court system. Many politicians and legislators have responded to these campaigns by passing “anti-Shari’ah” legislation in scattered jurisdictions throughout the country. However, rather than “protecting” Americans (as such legislators claim), such measures actually serve more nefarious goals: 1) to remove constitutionally guaranteed religious liberty protections for American Muslims, the vast majority of whom reference Shari’ah to determine how they perform religious rituals; and 2) to hide discriminatory measures that limit the rights and infringe upon the liberties of other groups of Americans, namely women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community.


For Muslims, Shari’ah is about worship, ritual, and personal regulation in their daily lives. Confusion arises, however, from the meaning of the term “Shari’ah” itself, which refers to “God’s laws” as laid out in the Qur’an and in the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Hadith). Shari’ah, like Jewish halacha, determines what is lawful for Muslims to consume. It helps them determine at what time and in what manner they offer their prayers. It governs when the holy month of Ramadan begins and ends, as they engage in its rigorous fasting rituals for 29 or 30 days each year. Shari’ah offers guidelines for marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption, and a spectrum of personal issues. It also provides Muslims with a religious compass to live an ethical and socially productive life. This is why Shari’ah is not fundamentally at odds with human rights conventions. Beyond the obvious fact that such practices are wholly within the scope of the free exercise clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, American Muslims themselves find no conflict between their responsibilities under both Shari’ah and the U.S. Constitution.

While there is little desire, and virtually no chance, of “Shari’ah law” becoming law in the United States, however, anti-Shari’ah bills, in their curtailing of some religious observances, such as marriage and divorce practices, do have real consequences for American Muslims. To observers outside the United States, such efforts appear comical at best; at worst, they suggest a country whose own adherence to the stated values of its constitution (first and foremost, religious liberty) is arbitrary and located in bigotry. For example, in 2014 alone, sixteen states introduced a total of thirty-seven anti-Shari’ah bills. Likewise, between 2011 and 2013, thirty-two states and the United States Congress introduced legislation to block Shari’ah; North Carolina and Oklahoma in fact passed anti-Shari’ah bills1. A small number of mainly Republican lawmakers are responsible for introducing and supporting these efforts without any knowledge of what Shari’ah really is. In the same period, no American Muslims had proposed legislation that would recognize or impose Shari’ah. The constitutionality of anti-Shari’ah laws has been challenged in several states, and federal courts have struck down these laws as violating the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, campaigns in favor of anti-Shari’ahlegislation are generally accompanied by a sizable amount of publicity, which creates a false alarm that Muslims are in fact seeking to implement Shari’ah in order to supersede the U.S. Constitution. They also create a toxic climate of enmity and distrust in which the idea that Muslims must be stopped at any level and by all available means gains ground. Explicitly crafted anti-Shari’ah laws are not the only way that American Muslims are targeted, however. Local and state governments either respond to public demand or take the initiative to apply existing regulations to block the construction of mosques, Islamic centers, and dedicated Muslim cemeteries.

In 2012 in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, for example, the planning commission rejected the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro’s effort to obtain a certificate of occupancy, citing zoning, traffic, and parking concerns. The mosque received its building permit only after considerable litigation, including the intervention of the Department of Justice on behalf of the Muslim community, but not before the planning commission questioned whether Islam is an actual religion deserving protection under the First Amendment. Although the Islamic Center ultimately prevailed, the litigation was very expensive, redirecting precious community resources to challenge the commission’s actions, and exposed the anti-Muslim sentiments of neighbors and government officials alike, creating a rift in the community.


While the passage of anti-Shari’ah laws is motivated by Islamophobia, there is evidence that such laws are part of a broader legislative agenda that affects a variety of demographic groups. While American Muslims may be an easy target, given the small size of their population and relatively weak political influence, efforts to pass laws designed to curtail their rights can serve as a cloak for lawmakers seeking to limit the rights of other groups. In fact, 80 percent of 102 anti-Shari’ah bills introduced between 2011 and 2013 were sponsored or co-sponsored by a legislator who supported laws limiting the freedoms of other groups, most notably voter ID and Right-to-Work—measures that disproportionately impact the rights of Latinos, African Americans, and women. These laws are designed to marginalize and disenfranchise people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and union membership.

The curious case of SB695 in North Carolina is perhaps the most poignant illustration of this political sleight of hand. In 2013, and for the first time since the mid-nineteenth century, North Carolina had a majority Republican legislature and a Republican governor. In the absence of any critical mass capable of mounting an opposition, the legislature sponsored and enacted laws that reflected its majority ideology. One such proposed bill was the 2013 Family, Faith and Freedom Protection Act (HB695). It was promoted as an anti-Shari’ah bill designed to prevent Islamic law from being implemented in North Carolina, to prevent state judges from considering “foreign law” in family court proceedings (e.g., divorce, alimony, or child custody), particularly Shari’ah. Prior to a floor vote on the bill, and literally at the eleventh hour, however, a series of provisions were added as riders to the bill, all of which restricted not the implementation of Shari’ah, but access to reproductive health care.

The strategy employed by the legislature to effectively use the public hysteria about and ignorance of Shari’ah as a smokescreen for other attempts at disenfranchisement— in this case, a woman’s access to reproductive health care—was notable. There appeared to be recognition that most North Carolinians would not be too concerned by an effort to ban Shari’ah and would therefore resist launching a campaign to block the legislation. With the primary focus of the bill being American Muslims, the surreptitious, last-minute amendment of the legislation to adversely affect women suggests that the effort was less about proscribing Shari’ah than it was about restricting access to abortion. Suzanne Buckley, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina, said about the Senate’s tactics, “It seems to me that they’re trying to pass under cover of darkness legislation that would not otherwise be passed.”4 North Carolina’s SB695 supported the suspicion that anti-Shari’ah bills are part of a coordinated, more comprehensive strategy to target and disenfranchise an array of demographic groups apart from American Muslims, including women. It also demonstrates that these legislative efforts are attempted through combining two seemingly disparate political issues into one bill, with the attention focused on a particular community that lacks sufficient public empathy and political capital necessary to mobilize opposition to the bill’s passage.


The efforts to marginalize and demonize Muslims, legislatively and politically, are a reminder to some of their own experiences with bigotry, and for others, represent the potential of such hatred being directed toward them. The commonality that comes from being targeted has created new empathy and led to coalition-building among targeted communities. Japanese-American organizations, witnessing disturbing similarities to World War II–era rhetoric and their own internment, are voicing their concerns for this toxic climate and asserting their solidarity with the American Muslim community. Similarly, local and national women’s organizations, African American and Latino groups, and American Muslims are increasingly recognizing that by working together, along with other allies, efforts to combat bigotry and racism for all targeted groups will be strengthened. At this moment in American history, Islamophobia represents only the latest effort to socially and politically reengineer American society under the guise of combating a phantom enemy.